With Tripartisan Approval, Drug Decriminalisation Looks Likely for Canberra

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ACT MLA Michael Pettersson is yet again championing the harm reduction approach to illicit substances. This time the Labor backbencher has initiated an investigation into the feasibility of decriminalising the use and personal possession of “drugs of dependence” in the capital territory.

And what makes this development so significant is that when Pettersson moved his successful motion to launch a parliamentary inquiry into decriminalisation, Labor, Greens and Liberal MPs all spoke in favour of the approach.

“A simple drug offence notice is a common sense step forward that will continue the territory’s standing as a nation leader in forward-looking drug policy,” Pettersson told the chamber on 20 August. He added that the community is well aware that the “just say no” approach doesn’t work.

Another reason this bodes well for sensible drug law reforms being enacted in Canberra is that Pettersson is the man who instigated the recent legalisation of the personal possession and use of cannabis in the ACT, which hasn’t resulted in the sky falling in.

Indeed, medical practitioners and harm reduction advocates nationwide have long been screaming for drug decriminalisation in line with the successful Portuguese model. And it looks as if the ACT might once more lead the country in the implementation of positive and progressive drug policy.

ACT Member of Legislative Assembly Michael Pettersson
ACT Member of Legislative Assembly Michael Pettersson

A health issue, not a crime

“There is a fundamental problem with the way that we deal with individuals who use these substances,” Pettersson told Sydney Criminal Lawyers. “When we criminalise this behaviour, we make it harder for these people to seek medical help.”

“That’s a real problem,” he continued, “because in moments of crisis, when people potentially overdose, or are experiencing some of the more negative behaviours that can occur from these drugs, people are scared to call the police and they’re scared to call ambulances.”

Over 2017-18, 609 people were arrested in the capital over drug possession, this was compared with 88 drug supply arrests. Pettersson asserts that the latter figure should far outweigh the former. And that criminal justice shaming of people who use drugs is ineffective.

The Labor MLA was prompted to move his decriminalisation motion, following the release of an ACT parliamentary committee report into youth mental health. The 46th recommendation of the Liberal top-heavy committee was to investigate the implementation of a simple drug offence notice.

“Further, if people develop long-term behavioural problems or addiction, it’s harder for these people to come forward and get help from medical professionals,” Pettersson added, “because they’re scared of the criminal justice repercussions.”

The Portuguese model

According to Pettersson, drug decriminalisation would involve a person who’s caught in possession of an amount of illicit substances for personal use, having them confiscated, then being directed to a medical professional or an education program, and potentially receiving a fine.

“That’s an essential way to deal with this issue in our community,” he said. “And it’s broadly supported by most people.”

Back in December 2015, the International Narcotics Board lauded the model of drug decriminalisation in Portugal as exemplary. And coming from the ultra-conservative, quasi-judicial body that’s saying something.

At the turn of the century, around one percent of Portugal’s population was heroin dependent. The nation also had the highest number of drug-related HIV deaths in Europe. And it became apparent to the government that the war on drugs it had long been waging was counterproductive.

So, in 2001, Portugal decriminalised the use of all illicit substances, along with the possession of an amount deemed personal. And this was coupled by the widespread investment in and roll out of drug rehabilitation and counselling services.

Over the past two decades, if Portuguese law enforcement has found anyone in the personal possession of any illegal drug, it has sent them to a dissuasion panel, which is comprised of a doctor, a lawyer and a social worker.

The panel can then recommend a fine, a treatment program or counselling, or simply send the individual on their way.

This led to Portugal having a drug-induced death rate in 2016 sitting at three per million residents, which was five times lower than the European average. And drug-related HIV infections had plummeted to just 40 in 2014, compared with 1,016 in 2001.

Pill testing saves lives

“In a decriminalisation model, you are still reliant on the supply chains of organised criminal gangs,” Pettersson further outlined. “There’s no quality control of these substances, and they’re often laced with deadly additives.”

“Pill testing provides one potential avenue to intervene and stop people consuming these substances,” he continued. “It’s the last available moment that you can make that intervention.”

While most Australian governments have balked at pill testing – or drug checking – services, the enlightened politicians down in Canberra have seen fit to permit Pill Testing Australia carry out two trials of this proven harm reduction approach at the local Groovin the Moo festival.

European nations, such as the Netherlands, France and Spain, have permitted pill testing since the early 1990s. The European Union has actually produced pill testing best practice guidelines.

Not only has pill testing been shown to save lives, but it reduces overall drug use, provides information for society-wide warnings about deadly drugs to steer clear of and it allows those who take drugs to engage with a health professional.

The April 2019 pill testing trial in Canberra saw 234 festivalgoers have their drugs tested using laboratory equipment. Seven samples were found to contain a potentially fatal substance, and the patrons who owned those drugs promptly threw them in the amnesty bins provided.

When you’re on a roll

“It has been a tremendous success, and it’s a good thing no one is talking about it,” said Pettersson in regard to the legalisation of the personal possession and use of cannabis.

Coming into play on 31 January this year, it’s now legal to possess up to 50 grams of cannabis in the ACT, and use it somewhere other than in public. An individual can lawfully grow two plants, with a household limit of up to four.

“No one has been arrested. No one has gotten a fine. And anecdotally, there hasn’t been a spike in any associated crimes,” Pettersson explained, adding that when you do remove the criminal repercussions and make drugs a health issue, it’s easier for the entire community to reduce use.

“The decriminalisation motion I moved last Thursday received support from all three major parties of the political assembly, so hopefully it’s a question of what that scheme looks like, as opposed to if that scheme happens,” the Labor MLA concluded.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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